Thursday, May 4, 2017

See maggots squirming

‘It is now as hot and sultry as it was ever my lot to witness. The cloudy weather and recent rains make everything damp and sticky. Wo don’t any of us sweat though, particularly, as we are pretty well dried up. Laying on the ground so much, has made sores on nearly every one here, and in many cases gangrene sets in, and they are very bad off. Have many sores on my body, but am careful to keep away the poison. To-day saw a man with a bullet hole in his head over an inch deep, and you could look down in it and see maggots squirming around at the bottom.’ This is from the astonishingly graphic diary of John L. Ransom, a Union Army soldier who was imprisoned by the Confederates during the Civil War at Andersonville. Although, initially, Ransom self-published the diary, it has long since been considered a primary source of information about the war and thus been reprinted many times, most recently by Dover Publications.

Ransom was born in Conneaut, Ohio, to Zebina and Mary Ransom, in 1843. While still in his teens, he began working as a printer for the Citizen (a predecessor of the Citizen Patriot), a newspaper based in Jackson, Michigan. In 1862, he joined the 9th Michigan Cavalry, part of the Union Army, becoming a quartermaster sergeant with Company A. However, in 1863, he was captured by the Confederates, and confined at Belle Isle, a Confederate prison on a small island in James River, near Richmond, Virginia. Some three months later, he was taken on a week-long train ride, for incarceration at a new prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Conditions there were appalling, with overcrowding, lack of food, bad water, disease; nearly a third of 45,000 prisoners died.

After around six months, during which time his weight had fallen from a little over 11 stone to six and a half stone, Ransom was transferred to the Marine Hospital at Savannah. There, he recovered, and eventually managed to escape, rejoining his unit in December 1864. After the war, he returned to work for the Citizen, which serialised a diary he had kept during his time in prison. He married twice, once to Eliza Finette Holway, who bore him a daughter, Katherine, and then, after Eliza’s death, he married Frances Wendell. He live in Auburn, New York, for a while, and also Chicago, where he died in 1919. There is very little biographical information about Ransom readily available online, but see MLive, Spartacus or a message board at Ancestry.

The diary kept by Ransom while in Anderson prison and then serialised by his newspaper was first published in its own right (privately, by Ransom himself), in 1881, as Andersonville Diary: Escape and List of the Dead (freely available at Internet Archive). Here is Ransom’s own introduction.

‘The book to which these lines form an introduction is a peculiar one in many respects. It is a story, but it is a true story, and written years ago with little idea that it would ever come into this form. The writer has been induced, only recently, by the advice of friends and by his own feeling that such a production would be appreciated, to present what, at the time it was being made up, was merely a means of occupying a mind which had to contemplate, besides, only the horrors of a situation from which death would have been, and was to thousands, a happy relief.

The original diary in which these writings were made from day to day was destroyed by fire some years after the war, but its contents had been printed in a series of letters to the Jackson, (Mich.) Citizen, and to the editor and publisher of that journal thanks are now extended for the privilege of using his files for the preparation of this work. There has been little change in the entries in the diary, before presenting them here. In such cases the words which suggest themselves at the time are best - they cannot be improved upon by substitution at a later day.

This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest. The annexed list of the Andersonville dead is from the rebel official records, is authentic, and will be found valuable in many pension cases and otherwise.’

Since its original publication, Ransom’s diary has become a primary source for US Civil War researchers, and has been reprinted many times, most recently in March 2017 by Dover Publications with the title John Ransom’s Civil War Diary: Notes from Inside Andersonville, the Civil War’s Most Notorious Prison (available to preview at Amazon). The Dover publication is an unabridged copy of Ransom’s original with one exception: it does not contain the 100 odd pages listing (in small print) the tens of thousands of names of those buried at Andersonville. Here are several extracts from the diary.

4 June 1864
‘Have not been dry for many days. Raining continually. Some men took occasion, while out after wood, to overpower the guard and take to the pines. Not yet been brought back. Very small rations of poor molasses, corn bread and bug soup.’

13 June 1864
‘It is now as hot and sultry as it was ever my lot to witness. The cloudy weather and recent rains make everything damp and sticky. Wo don’t any of us sweat though, particularly, as we are pretty well dried up. Laying on the ground so much, has made sores on nearly every one here, and in many cases gangrene sets in, and they are very bad off. Have many sores on my body, but am careful to keep away the poison. To-day saw a man with a bullet hole in his head over an inch deep, and you could look down in it and see maggots squirming around at the bottom. Such things are terrible, but of common occurrence. Andersonville seems to be head-quarters for all the little pests that ever originated - flies by the thousand millions. I have got into one bad scrape, and the one thing now is to get out of it. Can do nothing but take as good care of myself as possible, which I do. Battese works all the time at something. Has scrubbed his hands sore, using sand for soap.’

15 June 1864
‘I am sick; just able to drag around. My teeth are loose, mouth sore, with gums grown down in some places lower than the teeth and bloody, legs swollen up with dropsy, and on the road to the trenches. Where there is so much to write about, I can hardly write anything. It’s the same old story, and must necessarily be repetition. Raiders now do just as they please, kill, plunder and steal in broad daylight, with no one to molest them. Have been trying to organize a police force, but cannot do it. Raiders are the stronger party. Ground covered with maggots. Lice by the fourteen hundred thousand million infest Andersonville. A favorite game among the boys is to play at odd or even, by putting their hand inside some part of their clothing, pull out, what they can conveniently get hold of and say: “Odd or even?” and then count up and see who beats. Think this is an original game here. Never saw it at the North. Some of the men claim to have pet lice, which they have trained. Am gradually growing worse. Nothing but the good care I have taken of myself, has saved me thus far. I hope to last some time yet, and in the mean time, relief may come. My diary about written through. It may end about the same time I do, which would be a fit ending.’

2 July 1864
‘Almost the Glorious Fourth of July. How shall we celebrate? Know of no way except to pound on the bake tin, which I shall do. Have taken to rubbing my limbs, which are gradually becoming more dropsical. Badly swollen. One of my teeth came out a few days ago, and all are loose. Mouth very sore. Battese says: “We get away yet.” Works around and always busy. If any news, he merely listens and don’t say a word. Even he is in poor health, but never mentions it. An acquaintance of his says he owns a good farm in Minnesota. Asked him if he was married - says: “Oh, yes.” Any children? “Oh, yes.” This is as far as we have got his history. Is very different from Indians in general. Some of them here are despisable cowards - worse than the negro. Probably one hundred negroes are here. Not so tough as the whites. Dead line being fixed up by the Rebels. Got down in some places. Bought a piece of soap, first I have seen in many months. Swamp now in frightful condition, from the filth of camp. Vermin and raiders have the best of it. Captain Moseby still leads the villains.’

6 July 1864
‘Boiling hot, camp reeking with filth, and no sanitary privileges; men dying off over a hundred and forty per day. Stockade enlarged, taking in eight or ten more acres, giving us more room and stumps to dig up for wood to cook with. Mike Hoare is in good health; not so Jimmy Devers. Jimmy has now been a prisoner over a year, and poor boy, will probably die soon. Have more mementoes than I can carry, from those who have died, to be given to their friends at home. At least a dozen have given me letters, pictures &c., to take North. Hope I shan’t have to turn them over to some one else.’

9 July 1864
‘Battese brought me some onions, and if they ain’t good, then no matter; also a sweet potato. One-half the men here would get well if they only had something in the vegetable line to eat, or acids. Scurvy is about the most loathsome disease, and when dropsy takes hold with the scurvy, it is terrible. I have both diseases, but keep them in check, and it only grows worse slowly. My legs are swollen, but the cords are not contracted much, and I can still walk very well. Our mess all keep clean, in fact, are obliged to, or else turned adrift. We want none of the dirty sort in our mess. Sanders and Rowe enforce the rules, which is not much work, as all hands are composed of men who prefer to keep clean. I still do a little washing, but more particularly hair cutting, which is easier work. You should see one of my hair cuts. Nobby! Old prisoners have hair a foot long or more, and my business is to cut it off, which I do without regards to anything except to get it off. I should judge that there are one thousand Rebel soldiers guarding us, and perhaps a few more, with the usual number of officers. A guard told me to-day that the Yanks were “gittin licked,” and they didn’t want us exchanged, just as soon we should die here as not. A Yank. asked him if he knew what exchange meant; said he knew what shootin’ meant, and as he began to swing around his old shooting-iron, we retreated in among the crowd. Heard that there were some new men belonging to my regiment in another part of the prison; have just returned from looking after them, and am all tired out. Instead of belonging to the 9th Michigan Cavalry, they belong to the 9th Michigan Infantry. Had a good visit and quite cheered with their accounts of the war news. Some one stole Battese’s wash board, and he is mad; is looking for it - may bust up the business. Think Hub Dakin will give me a board to make another one. Sanders owns the jack-knife of this mess, and he don’t like to lend it either; borrow it to carve on roots for pipes. Actually take solid comfort “building castles in the air,” a thing I have never been addicted to before. Better than getting blue and worrying myself to death. After all, we may get out of this dodrotted hole. Always an end of some sort to such things.’

22 July 1864
‘A petition is gotten up, signed by all Sergeants in the prison, to be sent to Washington, D. C., begging to be released. Captain Wirtz has consented to let three representatives go for that purpose. Rough that it should be necessary for us to beg to be protected by our Government.’

No comments: